via NYTimes, Ping:
The Defenders of Free Software
By ASHLEE VANCE Published: September 25, 2010
ARMIJN HEMEL, 32, lives with his parents in Tiel, a town smack-dab in the middle of the Netherlands. He works as a technology consultant, but spends several hours a week on his avocation: pestering some of the world’s most powerful consumer electronics and technology companies.
Mr. Hemel serves as a volunteer watchman for free, open-source software like the Linux operating system, which competes with Microsoft’s Windows. The use of free software has exploded, particularly in gadgets as varied as exercise bikes, energy meters and smartphones. Companies like Google, TiVo and Sony often opt to piggyback on the work of others rather than going through the ordeal of building all of the software for their products from scratch.
The problem that Mr. Hemel and others have stumbled upon is that some companies, even some technology savvy ones, may be violating the rather easy-to-follow requirements associated with free software licenses. Typically, these include making tweaked versions of a free software product available to the public, or simply giving credit to the original developers.
Last month, for example, Dell received a public tongue-lashing from the geek kingdom and a cease-and-desist letter courtesy of Mr. Hemel for shipping its new Streak tablet without providing the underlying open-source software code. Dell representatives acknowledged the issue and later put the code on a Web site. “We are committed to fulfilling all of our obligations when using open-source code in our product,” said a Dell spokesman in a company blog.
Mr. Hemel says companies should make sure they know the ins and outs of everything they sell. “If we all play by the rules, we can make some really good stuff,” he says.
Quite often, companies that fail to live up to these requirements do so out of ignorance about the rules of engagement. Nonetheless, they become exposed to potentially expensive lawsuits.
For the moment, companies with open-source compliance issues are in luck. Most of the people, like Mr. Hemel, who prowl about for violations seek neither fortune nor painful retribution. The creators of open-source software tend to just want a modicum of recognition and for companies to do the right thing. “Going to court is not the nice thing to do,” Mr. Hemel says.
Typically, Mr. Hemel, who volunteers for gpl-violations.org, an organization named after a popular open-source license, receives an e-mail complaint from someone who suspects that a product may use open-source software without adhering to the rules. Mr. Hemel will sometimes then hop on his bike, ride to a local retailer, conduct a test purchase and then analyze the product to see whether it uses free software and whether the company selling the product has lived up to its end of the bargain. [...]